Hickeys weathering the storm

Bob Garnant and Melissa WilliamsCountryman

Narembeen sheep producer Joe Hickey has 1000 Merino sheep to move with nowhere to go and is looking at a possible income loss of 30 per cent or more.

Joe farms with his brother, Brendon, and their mother, Rhonda, and at a recent family crisis meeting they all agreed it was not an option to sell if they could avoid taking such a big hit in income.

"We do have to make room for 5000 weaned lambs, though, and we may have to buy-in feed at this point," he said.

Joe said his hopes rested on the Federal Government to assist livestock exporters to sort the trade out.

The family consigned 1414 wethers that left on the last live sheep boat out of WA before recent export permit hold-ups and managed to sell some cull rams to an exporter this week after holding them for an extra eight weeks. But the Hickeys have 1000 more wethers in limbo that are ready to be shipped.

Joe said these sheep, worth $100/head a few weeks ago, now had no buyers and in the current market would be worth $70/head, which was the lowest price for about three years and reflected an influx of supplies due to the shipping backlog.

He said he was aware of only one exporter - Emanuel Exports - seeking sheep orders this week and he hoped other players would quickly clear excess stock caused by export permit delays so the trade could resume at full speed.

"I would like to sell off some sheep sooner rather than later, but the exporters - like everyone else - are hamstrung and are being held up like we are," he said.

"We hope to have enough feed to get our wethers through for a few more weeks, but ideally it would be best to get them off-farm, especially as we have 5000 weaned lambs coming through the system as well and had to support the cull rams for longer than we would usually."

Joe said alternative markets for his wethers were not very attractive, with mutton prices down to $40 to 50/head and processor kill space extremely tight.

"We have to sit back and wait and hope that the boats get going again at full pace," he said.

"We rely heavily on the live export market and I am very nervous about its future.

"But the fact that the export permits are now released hopefully means it will get rolling again."

Joe said live sheep export delays had come at the worst time, as the family was facing average wheat crop yields of only 0.5t/ha.

He said the farm's sheep and lamb enterprise had been propping-up the business this year and the recent live shipping delays had dented cash flow in recent weeks.

"We thought we'd have the cash flow coming through from the wethers, but that has been delayed and that is making things tight," he said.

Joe said he would be wary about exporters returning to Middle Eastern markets that had previously rejected Australian sheep and damaged the reputation of the trade, but should not totally close the doors on these countries.

"They are big markets and we need their competition," he said. "But we do need a good system of assurances before we send any more sheep."

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